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A Second Chance at Life

My husband's brain tumor was the last thing we expected.

Photo by Steve Greiner

Kevin's headaches started the day before our wedding. He woke up that morning feverish, his head throbbing. Thankfully, the pain subsided and he felt much better on our wedding day. We enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon in the Caribbean, but soon after we returned home the headaches came back.

At first, I joked that my new husband was allergic to me. But as the frequency and intensity of Kevin's headaches brought on fatigue and depression, I worried that getting married had somehow upset his equilibrium. Kevin is a born athlete—a tremendous runner, an avid tennis player and a fierce competitor on the basketball court. But when the pain consumed him and he said he didn't have energy for anything else, I feared he was making excuses. Maybe in reality he wasn't happy in our marriage.

Then December came and I wanted to get ready for our first Christmas. When I suggested we go out to find a tree, Kevin said he didn't want to bother getting one. What on earth would keep a young couple from hunting for their first Christmas tree? Although we did eventually get one, I wondered what my husband's headaches would do to our marriage.

And it wasn't just our marriage that was affected. One day Kevin came home and told me about an incident at work. While sitting at his computer, he was practically paralyzed by the intense pain in his head. When he checked with his doctor, he got a prescription for painkillers. Later, when the medication didn't diminish the intensity or frequency of the headaches, the doctor lectured Kevin about his posture while sitting at the computer.

Entering the Maze

A few months passed, and we celebrated our first Easter as a married couple. But before the day was over, we found ourselves in the emergency room. Kevin had awakened early that morning to go for his usual five-mile run. Later in the day, after church and then dinner with my family, Kevin said he wanted to go home. By the time we got there, he could hardly move. I called the doctor, with Kevin in the background ready to explode from the pain. "I'm going to rip the phone right out of the wall if he tells me it's from working at the computer," he shouted.

We rushed to the emergency room, where I had to hold back the panic that rose up every time I thought of what might happen to my husband. Finally, after hours of waiting for test results and X-rays to be studied, the doctor came in. He got right to the point. "The bad news is you have a brain tumor," he told Kevin. "The good news is that it's very treatable."

The doctor seemed optimistic, which gave us hope that my husband's headaches weren't life-threatening. Still, I couldn't fight off the numbness that washed over me as I tried to make out what our future would hold.

We would have to wait until morning to learn more from the neurosurgeon. I wanted to reassure Kevin, but I couldn't find the right words. When I heard the word tumor, I automatically thought cancer. I wondered if I would become a widow after just a few months of marriage. Kevin, who had watched a good friend succumb to brain cancer, struggled with the same fears. "I just hope there's something left when they start cutting away," he said in anguish.

I had never felt this helpless. There was nothing either of us could do to calm our fears or to change the outcome of the surgery. All we could do was pray. "Please, God, help Kevin to be okay. Please don't let it be cancer." I had trusted in a loving Father since childhood, and I had always believed in prayer. But I had never needed him to answer my prayers more than I needed it just then.

Life or Death

It was 2 a.m. when Kevin finally was taken to a room, and he had only a few hours to rest before the doctor would make his morning rounds. I sat by his bedside, still in shock, as he tossed and turned. While Kevin tried to sleep, I prayed through the night.

The neurosurgeon came by at 5 a.m. After a brief introduction, he described the location of the tumor. It was near the center of Kevin's brain and about the size of a golf ball. This type of growth was rarely malignant, he said, but posed other dangers because of its location. The surgeon would need to drill holes in Kevin's head and make an incision along his hairline and on the right side of his head to expose his brain and remove the tumor.

The doctor then explained the risks. Even though it probably wasn't cancer, the threat to Kevin's life was real. He had a colloid cyst in the third ventricle of his brain. He could be partially paralyzed as a result of the surgery. He could have trouble speaking or even lose the ability to speak. And his personality could change. My husband might be a different person when he came out of the surgery.

'The bad news is you have a brain tumor,' the doctor said. 'The good news is that it's very treatable.'

"Does the surgery need to be done right away?" I asked. "Do we have time to get a second opinion?"

The doctor assured me that this was a life-or-death situation. "The tumor is pressing up against your husband's brain," he said. "He could stop breathing at any time."

We tried not to think about the what-ifs, but there were so many questions: what if he didn't survive? What if he stopped breathing before they could get him into surgery? What if I didn't like the person he might become after brain surgery? What if he didn't like me—or himself?

Finally, Kevin voiced his two greatest fears: "I hope I'm the same person when I come out," and then, "My biggest fear is losing you."

I held his hand and assured him I would be there for him and that we would go through this together, no matter what happened. We assured each other of our love. I just wanted to hold Kevin and savor every last minute with him. At 1 p.m. he would be wheeled into surgery, and all we could do was beg God to spare his life and steady the hands of the surgeon and attending physicians. It all still seemed unreal.

Time of Uncertainty

The hours spent waiting while Kevin was in surgery are a blur in my memory. I remember going with my mom to the hospital chapel to pray, then returning to the waiting room where someone—my dad?—brought me a cup of coffee. It was Monday evening. I hadn't slept or eaten and was still wearing my Easter dress. When my in-laws arrived from Ohio, my mom tried to comfort Kevin's mom. We could only wait.

After four long hours, Kevin's doctor emerged from the operating room. The surgery was a success, but Kevin still wasn't out of danger. The biggest risk now was that the swelling in his brain could cause him to go into a coma and die.

When I first saw my husband in the intensive care unit, he was groggy, barely able to squeeze my hand. But the next day was even worse. He looked like Frankenstein's monster, with large black stitches threaded across the width of his swollen forehead. The swelling in his brain caused him to lose his short-term memory. I would tell him something, but he would forget it within minutes.

Visiting friends and hospital therapists prodded him with questions. His memories were garbled. When asked where he went to college, Kevin gave the name of his employer. When asked about his favorite NBA team, Kevin responded without hesitation, "The Knicks." (His friends teased him about it later because Kevin hated the Knicks. He was a lifelong Celtics fan.)

I tried to be hopeful, but I couldn't quell the fear that I might never have my husband back. Would he ever be the same man I fell in love with? Would he even remember getting married? Once, as Kevin was surrounded by visitors, I said, "At least you know who your wife is." He looked confused, like he had no idea. Then he motioned to his friend's wife, as if to say, "Her?" I was crushed. But I tried to imagine how overwhelmed Kevin must have been, with so many conversations going on around him.

While I imagined the worst, I was determined to stay positive. Most of the time, he remembered me. But even when he didn't, I believed that God would heal Kevin in his own time. And it did take time.

The week after the surgery, my husband couldn't remember our marriage, our honeymoon or even my name. He'd lost 20 pounds, was too weak to walk and couldn't take care of himself. Today, six years after he left the hospital, we know we have experienced a miracle.

Of course, the years haven't been easy. Kevin endured every kind of therapy imaginable—physical, speech, occupational. But, in a matter of weeks, he made remarkable progress. After just three weeks in two different hospitals, Kevin was ready to come home. His homecoming was overwhelming at first. But once he was in familiar surroundings, the memories came flooding back. He knew me, and he remembered our wedding, our honeymoon and our first Christmas together.

Kevin began riding a stationary bike and lifting weights. Although his strength and mental capacity were improving, he still needed round-the-clock care for the first. We spent more time together, rediscovered each other and fell in love all over again.

The Road Home

While things slowly got back to normal, we realized we both had changed. When we first met, an active faith in Christ meant more to me than it did to Kevin. Going to church and spending time with other Christians was a bigger part of my life than his, and prayer came more naturally to me.

But after enduring months of pain and seeing his life and personality hang in the balance, Kevin opened himself to the work of God. The personality change that I had feared turned out to be slight—and welcome. Kevin has become a more sensitive, more relaxed and more spiritual husband than the man I married in 1993.

Just a few months after his surgery, Kevin made the difficult transition back to work. He spent many long hours at the office to prove to himself—and to his employer—that he could function at his former level. Gradually, it got easier, and four years later Kevin was taken off the anti-seizure medication, which sometimes made him groggy.

Two years after Kevin's surgery, we welcomed a baby girl into our lives. Three years later, I cried in the delivery room as the doctor said, "It's a boy!" I can't imagine life without Colleen and Andrew.

Today there are few visible signs of Kevin's ordeal—only a faded scar and a few small indentations on his head. All of his memories have come back, and he plans to run the Chicago Marathon this fall to commemorate his fortieth birthday.

I don't know what our marriage would have been like if my husband had not had a life-threatening brain tumor. But I know that after supporting each other through surgery and the years of recovery, we know what it means to trust God with our health, our marriage, our very lives. God was with us in our time of suffering; he listened and answered our prayers.

As newlyweds, we faced a life-threatening illness. God chose to give us a second chance, and we rejoice in the richness of this gift.

Carrie Fearn is a writer and former editor of Safety and Health magazine. She and Kevin live in the Chicago area with their two children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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